Fresh Air Interview: Journalist Peter Laufer - 'On Raising A Lion, Tiger Or Bear In Suburbia' Sometimes, a dog or a cat just won't do. In Forbidden Creatures, writer Peter Laufer enters the world of animal smuggling and exotic pets. He explains who's breeding pets for home consumers — and how raising certain species can go horribly wrong.

Raising Lions, Tigers And Bears In Suburbia (Oh My!)

Raising Lions, Tigers And Bears In Suburbia (Oh My!)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Kitty, a pet lion in Floyd County, Ky., was purchased at a flea market when he was a 5-pound cub. When he was photographed in 2006, above, Kitty weighed more than 400 pounds. Zachary Cantrell/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Zachary Cantrell/AP

Kitty, a pet lion in Floyd County, Ky., was purchased at a flea market when he was a 5-pound cub. When he was photographed in 2006, above, Kitty weighed more than 400 pounds.

Zachary Cantrell/AP

If you're looking to buy a tiger, camel, Burmese python or chimpanzee, head to the Internet -- or to Missouri.

"You can go online and search 'tiger for sale, lion for sale, monkey for sale' and get all sorts of opportunities," explains journalist Peter Laufer. "You can go to a state like Missouri, where although the laws are changing, basically the laws are unrestricted -- the ownership of animals of any kind is legal."

Laufer examines the world of exotic animals in suburbia -- including whether humans can own normally wild animals in a mutually safe and beneficial way -- in his new book, Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets.

In a conversation with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, Laufer explains how he spoke to breeders and traders who smuggle exotic animals across international boundaries and make it easy for customers to purchase and raise a tiger or camel in their backyards.

"I was originally intrigued by the issue of smuggling, but found it was becoming more interesting to try and learn: Who are these people? Why do they want these animals? And what are they doing with them?" Laufer says.

Forbidden Creatures: Cover Detail
Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets
By Peter Laufer
Hardcover, 272 pages
Lyons Press
List price: $19.95
Read an Excerpt

Peter Laufer is the author of several books, including The Dangerous World of Butterflies, Mission Rejected: U.S. Soliders Who Say No to Iraq and A Question of Consent: Innocence and Complicity in the Glen Ridge Rape Case. He has also written and produced several documentaries, including Garbage, a biography of household trash, and Exodus to Berlin, about the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Interview Highlights

On the kind of people who want exotic animals in their homes

"It seems to come down to people who want to either draw attention to themselves or want to make a statement of how consequential they are. The types include the extraordinarily wealthy, the powerful (in an underground world) like drug dealers -- those who want attention in public, like the muscle men walking down South Beach in Miami with the Burmese python around their neck along with the gold chain and the tattoos. These sound like stereotypes and they aren't. They're what I found as I looked to answer [who the people are.]"

On the legality of owning exotic animals

"We have a patchwork of laws around the country, so it depends on where you live. If you live in Texas and several other states, then sure, you can have a tiger in your yard and it's nobody's business more than it would be if you had any other animal. ... The laws differ state-to-state. Sometimes there are local and regional laws. There are no overarching federal laws to prevent you from having an exotic pet ... and the only thing that I can say to maybe make those who feel uncomfortable with all of this feel a little bit better is that the trend seems to be for more and more restrictive statewide laws making it more difficult for people to freewheelingly keep these kinds of animals."

On the people who take care of big cats such as tigers and lions

"If there were poster children for this lifestyle it would have to be Zuzana [Kukol] and Scott [Shoemaker, who own big cats in Nevada]. They have massive acreage out in the foothills and the animals themselves look well cared for ... and they seem happy (however, one would adjudicate the happiness of a caged, captive-bred animal). And maybe the best argument for them is that somebody's got to take care of them. These are animals that may have been raised initially, while captive-bred, to be so-called photo cubs. And they'd be in a shopping center and their picture would be taken with you and your kids and this would be something cute for your mantelpiece. Well, once this animal matures [and can't] be used for that purpose anymore, then where are they going to go? And there aren't enough places. So this couple likes their exotic pets, as they call them, and they keep them far from neighbors and they feed them well. It's not my lifestyle, but they seem quite happy."

Peter Laufer is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Dangerous World of Butterflies. Peter Laufer hide caption

toggle caption
Peter Laufer

Peter Laufer is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Dangerous World of Butterflies.

Peter Laufer

On the danger of having household exotic animals

"I think [the danger] is, perhaps ... part of the intrigue. A lot of us do things that could turn sour easily, whether it is going too fast on the highway or skydiving or whatever it is we choose to do. I think that the combination of the fact that they are anthropomorphized -- the big cats, maybe not the snakes -- and they are unusual and that they do draw attention to the owners combined with that reality that something may not work right. ... It's, 'Look what I'm able to do. You're afraid of this. It could kill you. It could kill me. But it's not going to kill me because it loves me.' "

On calls for legislation

"Those who believe that this activity is wrong -- either from an animal rights standpoint or because they think it's a danger to their community or even just annoyance in their midst -- seize on these kind of events [such as the chimp who attacked a woman in Connecticut or the baby smothered by a python] and bring attention to them for the purpose of using them as publicity devices against the lack of regulation and the sporadic enforcement of regulation."

Excerpt: 'Forbidden Creatures'

Forbidden Creatures: Cover Detail
Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets
By Peter Laufer
Hardcover, 272 pages
Lyons Press
List price: $19.95

Chapter Nine

Trapped Together: Connie Casey and Chimpanzee Factory

I wanted to find out more about where Roberta and Phil's chimpanzees were born. Turns out, it was in Missouri, on a breeder's farm south of St. Louis. As I continue to research chimpanzees as exotic pets or ersatz children, it is striking to me how relatively commonplace such a relationship is, and with commercial captive-breeding facilities such as Chimparty busy generating supply, at least some of the demand is satisfied.

Chimparty is the brand name Connie Casey and her husband, Mike, conjured for their Festus, Missouri, compound, acreage literally crawling with animals, including a posse of chimpanzees. Connie Casey is regularly mentioned in news items regarding chimpanzees, and she continues to celebrate the private ownership of great apes. (She and Mike Casey are no longer a couple; the word around Missouri is that he lit out for Hollywood with their best money-making chimp.) Travis was born at the Festus compound, and Travis's mother, Suzy, was shot dead in a Festus neighbor's driveway when Suzy and two other chimpanzees escaped their confinement and went for a walkabout. The shooter, a self-described "country boy" named Jason Coates, claims he feared for his life when he encountered the free-ranging Suzy, yet he went to jail for the killing. After Travis attacked Charla Nash, Coates petitioned the governor for a pardon.

A colleague working at a St. Louis television newsroom told me that Casey no longer talked to journalists. Stories about her and her chimps had made for sensational headlines; my colleague thought gaining an audience with her would be a tough sell. I decided against just showing up at her front gate and pressing the buzzer, and I figured that the usual strategy of calling on the phone and suggesting an appointment would not be a good approach, either. I ruled out subterfuge: falsely presenting myself as in the market for a pet chimp in order to get inside the perimeter. The Fox News show Inside Edition already went that route when one of the show's reporters, Paul Boyd, toured Chimparty posing as a prospective buyer. Instead I sent an old-fashioned letter to Casey and enclosed a copy of my butterfly book in the parcel.

"I know that there have been considerable controversies surrounding Chimparty, and, of course, that is one of the reasons I wish to speak with you," I wrote. "I am committed, as a journalist, to doing all I can to understand an issue, and that means talking with primary sources." I drew attention to the fact that nobody I interviewed for the butterfly book complained about his or her portrayal in its pages. "If you look through The Dangerous World of Butterflies, I think you will agree with reviewers and with those I interviewed for the book that I reported accurately and treated all fairly. From what I've heard, you have important and fascinating stories to share, stories that I know will help me properly explain to the uninitiated the world of exotic pets."

I waited a week and started calling Connie Casey. Each time I called, the voice mail answered, and each time I left a detailed message and my phone number. I arrived in St. Louis and left yet another message, this time announcing that I was in her neighborhood. Casey finally returned my call, apologized for ignoring me, expressed worry that she might be making an error by opening Chimparty to my prying eyes and ears, and then invited me to Festus.

At this point I'm several months into my investigation of exotic pets and their owners. I'm finding it hard to accept the arguments offered by most aficionados of exotics to rationalize their hobby. As I worked to gain access to Connie Casey and her compound, I expected the experience to reinforce my growing prejudices, but I'm prepared for them to be debunked. Perhaps once I'm inside the perimeter fence, I'll find a happy interspecies homestead and a rationale for populating the heartland with captive-bred wild animals that belong in the jungles of Africa.

The weather is gray, and it's drizzling as I drive through the verdant hills on a Jefferson County road, keeping track of the passing miles and watching for landmarks. I come around a curve, and there it is, impossible to miss: Chimparty. A few of what initially look like farm silos sit in clear view of the road, but these are silos with their tops cut off and with wire mesh instead of walls. Even from the roadside the animals inside are easy to spot. Monkeys, monkeys, and more monkeys. Casey is waiting for me and opens the chain-link fence gate. She's wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag fluttering in the wind. Her hair is short and brown, her blue eyes look wary, but her hospitality is warm and generous. She escorts me to her house, and we settle into chairs on the front porch, looking out at enclosures filled with a variety of primates. A capuchin monkey directly across the drive from us rattles a loose piece of corrugated metal, its clattering impossible to ignore. "He's just trying to attract attention," Casey explains away the noise. Dogs join us. "He's got allergies, and he stinks," she says about her old white boxer, as he comes to nuzzle me, "but I still love him." To gain the few steps up the porch, Casey, who limps slightly, uses a hanging rope to hoist herself. Similar ropes are spotted around the house and the cages as exercise equipment for the apes. We exchange pleasantries and waste no time. I ask her why people are captivated by apes.

"They're so smart, and they're so fast, and they're so inquisitive, and their social group is so amazing. They have hands; they can manipulate. They're lucky because they have tails, so they have a fifth hand. I think people see reflections of themselves in primates."

"But why own a pet ape?" I ask. "And is pet the correct word for an animal that is so much like us?"

"Most people who have a primate as a pet, so to speak -- they're not pets. They call them family members. They come into your home, and they come into your heart. The primate becomes part of the family."

"But they're not just like us."

"No, I'm not trying to say that. They're definitely not." She searches for the words to explain why she surrounds herself with apes. "I can't explain it. It's just in your heart; it's either there, or it's not." Casey tells me that she believes most animal lovers, given the chance to interact one-on-one with a monkey or a chimp, would want one of their own. "People will probably think I'm awful, but I have to say, I probably love them as much as I love my children." In the same breath she adds quickly, "And I love my children. My daughters grew up with these chimps." They're off and married now, but they come to visit. "They still look at these chimps as their brothers and sisters, because they grew up with them." From where we're sitting, we can't see those chimp brothers and sisters, only the silo-cages across the driveway filled with various monkeys, and the capuchin and a lion-tailed macaque living in side-by-side cages next to us on the porch.

"It takes a lot of work," Casey says about ape keeping. A duck or a goose squawks from the pond next to the house. "I don't ever go on vacation."

"I can't imagine you could," I say, looking out at what I can see of her collection. She takes care of the animals with the help of one employee and a part-time volunteer.

"Truthfully, I don't want to go on vacation. I want to be here with these guys. People say, 'Don't you ever get tired of staying at home?' I do, sometimes. But I love my guys."

It's easy to see their appeal, even as she talks. The capuchin in the cage is playing with a napkin, acting as if it is a kerchief, making itself look like a babushka. It is cute, humanlike, and intriguing to watch.

"Why do we want to be with something that is so much like us but isn't us?" I ask.

From Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets by Peter Laufer. Copyright 2010 Peter Laufer. Excerpted with permission by Lyons Press.

Books Featured In This Story